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Medical workers and police treat a woman who had overdosed on heroin in Warren, Ohio. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


‘Lives are being saved’

Opioid deaths decline for first time in 30 years

President Donald Trump highlighted the opioid crisis during his 2016 campaign. Now, for the first time in three decades, deaths from overdose of opioid painkillers in the United States have dropped by nearly 5 percent, according to government estimates for 2018.

Some regions of the country boast even more impressive statistics. In Pennsylvania, overdose deaths fell by an estimated 18 percent. In Ohio’s Hamilton County, which includes the city of Cincinnati, opioid overdose deaths plummeted 34 percent, emergency room visits due to opioid overdose fell 36 percent, and patients entering treatment for opioid addiction rose 50 percent, according to the Providers Clinical Support System (PCSS), a coalition of 20 national healthcare organizations working to address the epidemic.

“Lives are being saved,” Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex M. Azar II said in a tweet, “and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis.” He attributes the promising statistics to “America’s united efforts to curb opioid use disorder.”

In 2017 HHS launched a five-point strategy to combat the crisis. The strategy includes improving addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery services; improving pain management; supporting more timely health data and reporting; and increasing research on pain and addiction. President Trump’s 2019 budget includes $74 million in new investments to increase availability of overdose-reversing drugs.

States and communities across the country are employing these strategies. Some cities have allowed emergency rooms, syringe exchange sites, and walk-in clinics easier access to methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, FDA-approved medications that help to suppress cravings and ease symptoms of withdrawal. Last month New Jersey began allowing paramedics to administer buprenorphine as soon as they have revived an overdose victim.

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E.I. Galanzha et al., Science Translational Medicine

(E.I. Galanzha et al., Science Translational Medicine)


Search and destroy

New laser technology detects cancer cells in blood

A new type of laser can find and destroy cancerous melanoma cells in blood with 1,000 times the sensitivity of current detection tools. Most melanoma-related deaths occur because malignant cells at the original tumor site seep into the blood and spread to vital organs before doctors find them, Vladimir Zharov, director of the nanomedicine center at the University of Arkansas, told Live Science.

A machine called a Cytophone, described in the June 12 issue of Science Translational Medicine, shoots laser pulses at the outside of the skin. The laser heats the dark melanin pigment in the malignant cells, and an ultrasound sensor detects the tiny heat waves the cells emit.

Using the new technique, researchers identified circulating tumor cells in 27 of 28 cancer patients within 60 minutes with no false positives for other healthy volunteers, side effects, or skin damage. Scientists intended to find cancer cells but were surprised when they discovered the low-energy laser used for detection also destroyed those cells.

Melanoma, the most dangerous skin cancer, will kill an estimated 7,230 people this year.


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An Ebola victim is buried in Butembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)


Battling a killer

Health workers continue to fight the second-worst Ebola outbreak in history

The second-worst Ebola outbreak in history continues to wreak havoc in eastern Congo. As of June 5, the disease had infected 2,031 people and killed 1,367. Nearly one-third of the cases involve children under the age of 18.

The region’s high population and close proximity to Rwanda, Uganda, and South Sudan pose a high risk for the virus to spread. On June 11, health officials confirmed a case in Uganda.

An experimental vaccine created by Merck, V920, is highly effective against Ebola. But the number of available doses is limited, and the shot takes roughly 10 days to produce immunity, a Merck representative told Gizmodo. Other hurdles have also made it difficult for health workers to contain the disease: They include widespread violence, people fleeing the country, distrust of government and healthcare workers, and misinformation.

In a glimmer of good news, the World Health Organization reported on June 6 the number of new cases had declined to 88 per week, down from 126 per week in April. But the organization cautioned, “Substantive rates of transmission continue within affected communities, and further waves of the outbreak may be expected.” 

The worst Ebola outbreak in history began in West Africa in 2014 and infected nearly 30,000 people, killing more than 11,000.

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